Ukraine’s civil society is ferociously defending the war’s other front – the one not of territory, but of democracy. Amid Russia’s bombardment of targets that are vital to Ukraine’s democratic development – education, health, energy — support for that front is just as critical, not only for survival, but also to ensure that when Ukraine regains territorial sovereignty, it can also continue its democratic evolution.

In the face of this clash between Russia’s autocracy and Ukraine’s democracy, civil society in Ukraine in the past year has undergone a large-scale shift from a primary focus on development, democracy, and advocacy for veterans and women’s rights, to an understandable emphasis on humanitarian operations. And the country’s volunteer movement has transitioned at the local level from civic activism to civil defense. Yet these civil society organizations remain a backbone of Ukraine’s democracy, and the international community will have to tread carefully to ensure its own increasing footprint supports, rather than hinders, their central role in the country’s longer-term development.

The concept of civil society is largely a construct of liberal democracies, and Ukraine’s has been shaped and sustained by Western democracy assistance since its independence. That evolution got a particular jump-start with the 2004 Orange Revolution, a national civil resistance movement to depose an illegitimate regime that had committed large-scale electoral fraud.

But civil society in Ukraine is different in fundamental ways from its more formal, legalistic Western counterparts. Ella Lamakh, head of the Ukrainian organization The Democracy Development Center (DDC)), notes that her country, unlike Russia, has a deeply rooted culture of philanthropy that predates Soviet control of Ukraine. Following the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear plant disaster, the rebirth and organization of independent civil society was integral to Ukrainian nationalism and the restoration of Ukrainian values and society.

Another distinctive feature of Ukrainian civil society is that it is highly movement-based. Both the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” (also known as “the Maidan Revolution” for Kyiv’s central square, where the protests were centered) were national civil resistance movements that shaped Ukraine’s civil society. What does this look like in practice? First, Ukraine’s civil society is highly networked. Andriy Tarelin, a board member of the Center for Private Initiative Assistance (CPIA) in the northwest city of Kharkiv, described how, in 2014, every city in Ukraine organized a web of simultaneous Maidan demonstrations, spreading the revolution nationally, even into the East.

The Maidan Revolution was transformative. While several political leaders emerged to represent the peaceful protesters during negotiations with the government, the movement was essentially leaderless. It was by and of the people, driven by an insistence that citizens’ voices were powerful and integral to the constellation of political power in Ukraine. What began as a demonstration against the duplicity and opportunism of the government of Viktor Yanukovych became a movement of social renewal, with Ukraine’s citizens united in respect for all citizens and their civil society.

Another feature of Ukraine’s civil society is its relationship with social volunteerism, which works in tandem with civil society and is how civil society remains fluid and adaptive. It’s not an overstatement to say that volunteerism saved the country in 2014 during Russia’s capture of Crimea and its subsequent invasion of the East. Recognizing that Ukraine’s military, weighed down by corruption and Moscow loyalists, was incapable of defense, thousands of Maidan protestors headed to the East to hold the front until armed militias and Army reinforcements arrived.  Many lost their lives; others reverted to the rear to organize military and medical resupply. As the war progressed, these volunteers organized veterans services to care for the combat-wounded and those discharged from the military. In Ukraine, volunteerism is civil society’s vanguard. Volunteers surge in response to emerging needs, creating new paths for civil society, as volunteer movements professionalize and institutionalize.

Stages of Acceptance and Denial

In the runup to Feb. 24, 2022, Ukraine’s civil society was in various states of acceptance and denial regarding Russia’s war of aggression. Marta O. Pyvovarenko, a mental-health research expert and co-founder of the Development Foundation, a psycho-social support organization, had worked closely with the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to establish veterans care in Ukraine for those returning from the fighting that had already been going on for eight years by that point. Based on open-source U.S. defense assessments, the Development Foundation with other civil society partners began in December 2021 to publish advice on Facebook on how to prepare for evacuations and how to make bomb shelters habitable. Anticipating civilian casualties, they began  trainings to increase the number of paramedics.

Meanwhile, Lamakh and Maria Dmytriyeva at the DDC were uncertain when Russia would wage such a major invasion and refused to submit to Moscow’s intimidation, which they understood was meant to destabilize Ukraine’s democracy and therefore its civil society. So they were still hosting youth from all over Ukraine in Kyiv, training them to be peacebuilders in their communities.

In the weeks after the invasion, CPIA board member Tarelin and Galyna Ovcharova, with the organization Youth for Democracy in Kharkiv, fled Russia’s occupation of the city’s neighboring regions, as the Russian army moved closer to the city center. Members of CPIA’s board, Development Foundation staff and Youth for Democracy participants joined the army and immediately deployed to the front. After ensuring that members of their youth delegation returned safely to their homes, Lamakh headed to Lviv. It was not certain then that Kyiv would be able to resist Russia’s intent to decapitate the Ukrainian government, and, as Ukrainians fled to the western regions, Lamakh felt she could best accomplish her institution’s mission of strengthening local governance and women’s rights by helping the internally displaced, mostly women, arriving daily in Lviv.

For civil society, this first phase of the war, from March to May 2022, was one of shock and disruption. Pyvovarenko remembers that her primary work during those days was evacuating staff to Europe as refugees, bringing internally displaced people to her hometown of Lviv and establishing logistics supplies of medicine and food. Lamakh was receiving calls from local civil society partners all over Ukraine, asking for help in evacuating citizens from Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Kherson, as the Russian army advanced. Her own mother was caught behind enemy lines in the South. Yet, civil society’s rapid reconstitution in new locations or with new missions or both was remarkable and due in large part, interviewees confirmed, to its networked and fluid nature.

Even since the Orange Revolution, the DDC has built local civil society capacity throughout Ukraine, and the network adapted after the 2022 full-scale Russian assault to provide humanitarian and migration assistance throughout the country to the growing number of internally displaced families. Halyna Skipalska, executive director of the Ukrainian Foundation for Public Health, told me that most civil society organizations in Ukraine had already adapted to wartime operations after 2014, evacuating staff from Donetsk and Luhansk in the East, and providing psycho-social support to internally displaced people following the Russian invasion that year.

During the intervening years, her organization ran specialized mobile units in the East, providing counseling and support to women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and domestic violence. These specialized units have been critical in supporting women since the full-scale invasion in 2022, given the brutality of Russia’s occupation and the use of rape as a weapon of war. The DDC, too, modified its work to focus on Ukraine’s eastern frontline regions, building the capacity of women’s civil society organizations and local governments to implement United Nations Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, ensuring that government programs in those regions addressed the impact of the war on women and engaged them meaningfully in decision-making. This work provided a foundation for cooperation between civil society and local government to manage conflict-related issues, such as internally displaced people, gender-based violence, and veterans’ reintegration, as local governments bore the brunt of dislocation.

Crucial to the War Effort

This all-of civil-society response is as important to the war effort as the military’s combat operations in a number of ways. Last autumn, due to multiple battlefield failures, Moscow’s strategy changed to attacking civilian institutions and energy infrastructure to force Ukraine’s capitulation, or at least to pressure the government in Kyiv to negotiate a peace settlement. Full-scale humanitarian response and civilian-protection operations by civil society have been critical to reducing the suffering of the civilian population, and to maintaining public support for Russia’s defeat, which Ukraine’s leadership sees as the only way to guarantee the country’s long-term security.

Civil society also has been crucial for supporting Ukraine’s local governments, which have become more empowered since 2014 as a result of a significant democratic reform effort — decentralization and amalgamation — that gave them more authority and funding. Ukraine’s winning response to last year’s full-scale invasion is at least in part the result of the dexterity and authority of local governments, which civil society has assisted with resources, coordination, and international donor contacts. Ukraine’s volunteerism movement has been instrumental at the local level. Tarelin, on his return to Kharkiv in the fall, was astounded by the enormity of volunteer activism, which is in turn coordinated and funded by Kharkiv’s government to supply critical government services. Ovcharova also noted the creativity and resourcefulness of volunteers in Kharkiv, who, for example, have organized to send food to the front by buying produce from nearby farmers to keep local agriculture alive.

The promise that these relationships portend for citizen trust in government, and vice versa, says Tarelin, has been one of the most positive aspects of the response to the war. Maintaining volunteer and civil society strength and activism, from the national to the local level, is also critical for ensuring that Ukraine remains on the path of democratic progress. Historically, civil society and citizen activism were the primary protectors of its democracy in the face of rampant government corruption and oligarchic control (managed from Moscow) of major segments of Ukrainian political and economic life. This activism will be critical to the post-war effort not only in rebuilding infrastructure, but in rebuilding democracy, which has had some setbacks due to necessary wartime limitations, such as martial law and a moratorium on political party competition.

When asked what worries civil society leaders most, many of those interviewed deflected the question, responding that now was not the time to focus on civil society needs. “Nothing must distract Western attention from helping Ukraine win the war, as that is the best guarantee that civil society in Ukraine will exist,” said Larissa Babij, who provides psycho-social support to wounded veterans. Several Western organizations have identified specific threats to Ukraine’s civil society and its support for democracy.


But the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and Refugees International have outlined some of the vulnerabilities. International IDEA recognizes that EU accession, a path that Ukraine has embarked on, is not necessarily synonymous with democracy strengthening, as seen in the Western Balkans, where the EU permitted partial compliance with anti-corruption reforms and limited civil society participation in key policy issues. Ensuring that civil society is supported through the war and remains a powerful, active voice after the war is critical, even with robust international commitments to Ukraine’s democratic development. Refugees International highlights the past failures of the international humanitarian community when it comes to their own commitment to localization (The Grand Bargain) and the building of local humanitarian capacity.

Ukraine has demonstrated both a robust civil society and independent humanitarian response in the first months of the war, unlike other conflict-affected states that had neither. To undercut this existing capacity by hiring away civil society leaders to international organizations rather than supporting them in their indigenous roles, undermining their existing decision-making capacity and robust standards of operation, or eroding their ability to operate independently of the government and international donors – bad practices that have occurred in other conflict contexts — would create a double tragedy. In other countries, international humanitarian relief operations prevented indigenous capacity from emerging. In Ukraine, this would weaken an existing capacity that is essential to Ukraine’s democracy.

When asked how the upsurge in international presence and funding was affecting civil society in Ukraine, those I interviewed insisted that while the international presence was indeed growing, the experience had been overwhelmingly positive because of the growing respect for Ukraine’s civil society. Today, the bulk of international donations are funneled through the United Nations, which has a mixed reputation in Ukraine as an organization that can support societies in war, but not prevent those wars.

Pyvovarenko, Lamakh, Skipalska, and Tarelin noted that most Ukrainian organizations by last summer were “on their knees” after their initial response to last year’s full-scale invasion. Funding was limited, staff had fled or had been mobilized (The Development Foundation lost 70 percent of its staff), and they were experiencing exhaustion and burnout. International donors have provided much-needed support and funding, and have done so strategically and thoughtfully. With the bulk of her Development Foundation staff in Europe or at the front, Pyvovarenko is now employed by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), where she is able to continue the work of her previous organization with greater reach. That includes providing mobile psycho-social support brigades to more than 43,000 citizens, even in previously occupied territories, and opening a national hotline for men struggling with depression and mental-health problem.

International donors overall have been attuned to the fact that Ukrainian civil society has a high standard of operations; Lamakh tells the story of a donor’s amazement that professional standards for programming, even at the local level, already existed and could be reinforced. In Kharkiv, international donors have already begun to think strategically about how to preserve critical aspects of Ukrainian civil society even with civil society’s humanitarian transition. Tarelin said donors are already discussing how to maintain entrepreneurialism, business innovation, and private investment-research partnerships in Ukraine even in the midst of war.

Civil society’s professionalism in Ukraine has led to robust co-creation processes for programming, said Skipalska, such as marrying internationally tested frameworks with Ukraine’s own standards for operating. She is optimistic that, as civil society in Ukraine expands during the war, it will also strengthen critical capacity and expertise that will make it a formidable voice in post-war Ukraine.

Strains With the National Government

Where perhaps civil society relations are weakest is with the national government in Kyiv. Ministries, which often had strained relations with civil society groups over health, veterans, and social-reform efforts, have largely frozen their relations with civil society and talk of government reform, claiming the need to prioritize the war effort. Civil society leaders report growing resentment on the part of ministries, as international assistance flows to civil society in areas they consider their purview.

Ovcharova argues that there is a growing missed opportunity by all – civil society, the government, and the international community — to design and organize major reforms of the government in social welfare, justice, gender equality, and veterans’ affairs, for example, in cooperation with civil society, which can connect with citizen’s needs and voices to ensure the reforms have sustainability and legitimacy. Reforming the government and strengthening its capacity in these areas is absolutely essential for the post-war reconstruction and recovery. Making the case now that the international community expects civil society to be a crucial voice in these reforms is also vital to Ukraine’s post-war success.

With respect to civil society’s insistence that the first priority for the international community must be support for Ukraine’s military effort, the international community must not lose sight of essential support for civil society and democracy in the following areas:

  • Push Ukraine’s central government to engage civil society robustly on critical government reform, especially in the social sector, to lay the foundation for a successful post-war reconstruction of democracy, society, and infrastructure.
  • Advance Ukraine as an important test case for the humanitarian community’s “Grand Bargain,” a 2016 commitment by large international donors and humanitarian organizations to build and sustain humanitarian capacity locally. This will require ensuring that Ukrainian civil society has local decision-making authority, that it is trained and positioned to build and lead its own humanitarian response, and that its robust organizations are defended and preserved, even as international organizations increase their own presence.
  • Strengthen international development donor’s capacity to fund and support movement-based politics, which are a core aspect of Ukrainian civil society’s flexibility and adaptation.
  • Continue to support the development of civil society’s human capital. Ukraine is losing its best and brightest to both the war and to displacement and needs a robust plan to educate and grow new civil society leaders.

Finally, the international community must learn from Ukraine. In an era where regimes the world over are repressing civil society and popular support for democracy is low in many countries, Ukraine has offered lessons in how to support and reinforce universal human rights without diminishing national loyalty, to organize leaderless movements that succeed, and to renew and grow civil society even under the most strenuous circumstances. These are among many important lessons that Ukraine civil society has to offer, even as it preserves and strengthens democracy in the midst of war.

The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Democratic Institute.

IMAGE: A volunteer lifts a pot of soup from the stove at a humanitarian center in Bakhmut on February 3, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)